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The Enduring Legacy of Norman Lear's Good Times

What you need to know about the classic 70s sitcom soon to get the Live in Front of a Studio Audience treatment.
  • The original cast of Good Times: Ralph Carter, Bern Nadette Stanis, John Amos  Ja'net DuBois, Esther Rolle and Jimmie Walker. (CBS)
    The original cast of Good Times: Ralph Carter, Bern Nadette Stanis, John Amos Ja'net DuBois, Esther Rolle and Jimmie Walker. (CBS)

    Comfort TV is alive and well this holiday season — the dubious need look no futher than ABC's returning Live in Front of a Studio Audience. This high-wire act of nostalgia and live television worked so well as a one-off special last spring (ratings! Emmy nominations!) that Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear are back with another all-star cast, this time re-enacting a different episode of All in the Family and another from one of Norman Lear's other seminal 70s sitcoms, Good Times.

    Although the tales of James and Florida Evans' family may be a little less zeitgeist-y these days than those of Archie and Edith Bunker or George and Weezy Jefferson, it's important to know that for a generation of people — black people especially, but not exclusively — Good Times was a hugely important TV touchstone. One need look no further than the black-ish fantasy episode that imagines the Johnson family as the cast of Good Times for proof of that.

    So before this week's live TV event, here's what you need know about Good Times:

    It's Related to All in the Family, But Only by Marriage

    While it falls in the patheon of Norman Lear's '70s sitcom universe through the character of Florida Evans (who was first introduced in Maude, itself a spin-off from All in the Family), Good Times is more of a distant cousin to those shows. Unlike its predecessors, Good Times was not created by Norman Lear. That credit goes to Eric Monte and Michael Evans (who played Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family and The Jeffersons). Lear developed the show to incorporate Florida, Maude's housekeeper on Maude, played by Esther Rolle. Hers was the only character carried over, with her history (and husband) changed to fit the framework of Monte and Evans' show.

    Lear served as one of the show's executive producers, with the show produced under the aegis of his production company thoughout its six year run.

    It Featured TV's First Two-Parent African American Family

    Anchored by Rolle as Florida Evans and John Amos as her husband James Evans, Good Times was the the first TV series to put an African American family at the center of its story. (1969's Julia and Lear's own Sanford and Son prededed it, but both focused on single African American parents.)

    Much like Lear's other shows, Good Times' premise provided fertile gound for discussion of the social and political issues of the day, with Florida and James struggling to make ends meet while raising their three children in a housing development in South Chicago.

    The Evans children were portrayed by Jimmie Walker (James Jr, aka "J.J."), Bern Nadette Stanis (Thelma) and Ralph Carter (Michael), with Ja'Net DuBois playing the part of family friend (and later substitute matriarch) Willona Woods.

    It Was An Instant Hit, Thanks in Large Part to Jimmie "J.J." Walker

    Initially aired as a 13-episode mid-season replacement in February 1974, the show consistently ranked among the top 20 shows in its first season, breaking into the top ten in its second season.

    Much of the credit for the show's high ratings was attributed to the breakout success of Jimmie Walker's J.J. character. Much like Michael J. Fox's portrayal of Alex Keaton on Family Ties and Jaleel White's portrayal of Steve Urkel on Family Matters, the massive popularity of Walker's character made him the defacto star of the show, complete with his own catchphrase "Dy-no-mite," which spawned a merchandising frenzy early in the show's run.

    Behind the scenes, Good Times' increased focus on J.J became a source of friction for the show's other players, most notably Rolle and Amos, who spoke out publicly about Walker's character, describing him as a clown who tarnished the image of this otherwise proud, hard-working family sitcom. Amos was so dissatisfied that he was eventually let go from his role, with James Evans killed in an offscreen accident, leading to the show's famous "Damn, Damn, DAMN!" moment.

    Rolle would step away from Good Times herself after the show's fourth season, leading to a freefall in ratings. She returned for Season 6 after producers agreed to make Walker's J.J. character a more responsible role model, but ratings failed to recover and the show was cancelled.

    It Served as a Launching Pad for Some Future Big Names

    At the show's height, Jimmie Walker hired two comedian friends to write one-liners for his character. Those comedians? None other than then-friends Jay Leno and David Letterman. (Leno appeared on screen in a Season 3 episode.) Both comedians have credited Walker with giving them one of their first big breaks.

    In addition to Leno and Letterman, Good Times introduced the world to Janet Jackson in her first on-screen acting role as Penny Gordon Woods, an abused girl who was abandoned by her mother and eventually adopted by Willona. Other actors who appeared on the show before achieving greater fame later in their careers include Debbie Allen, Gary Coleman, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Guillaume, Philip Michael Thomas and Carl Weathers.

    It Had a Seriously Kick-Ass Theme Song

    The undisputed highlight of last spring's Live in Front of a Studio Audience special was Jennifer Hudson's live rendition of The Jeffersons theme song, and while Hudson's performance will be hard to top, ABC has lined up Anthony Anderson and Patti Labelle to sing the Good Times theme song, which is ace source material at the very least.

    The gospel-styled theme song was composed by Dave Grusin, who would go on to win an Oscar and two Grammys for his work as a film composer and featured studio musicians Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams on lead vocals. Written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (two-time Academy Award-winners themselves), the lyrics are famously difficult to discern, most notably the line "Hangin' in and jivin'," which Dave Chappelle incorrectly identified as "Hangin' in a chow line" in his "I Know Black People" skit on Chappelle's Show.

    Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times airs Weds December 18th at 8:00pm ET on ABC.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Live in Front of a Studio Audience, ABC, All in the Family, Black-ish, Chappelle's Show, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford And Son , Anthony Anderson, BernNadette Stanis, Carl Weathers, Dave Chappelle, Dave Grusin, David Letterman, Debbie Allen, Esther Rolle, Gary Coleman, Ja'Net DuBois, Janet Jackson, Jay Leno, Jimmie Walker, Jimmy Kimmel, John Amos, Louis Gossett Jr., Norman Lear, Patti LaBelle, Philip Michael Thomas, Ralph Carter, Robert Guillaume, Theme Songs